Up to 50 pilot factories are likely to take part in the first year of Better Work Bangladesh

Up to 50 pilot factories are likely to take part in the first year of Better Work Bangladesh

The Better Work Bangladesh initiative is due to "get going in earnest next year" as part of wider efforts to improve working conditions in the country's ready-made garment industry.

The initiative, a joint venture of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), was first announced in October last year as part of a package of measures to help shore up the sector in the wake of the Tazreen Fashion factory fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse.

According to Tuomo Poutiainen, programme manager for the ready-made garment sector at the ILO, Better Work Bangladesh is still in the preparatory stages "and we expect it to be rolled out more in earnest in the coming year."

Speaking to just-style at the sidelines of the recent Dhaka Apparel Summit, he added: "The staff is on board, they are going to factories, they are testing approaches for training and assessment, and we are pre-registering factories." He added that "orientation" is currently taking place for the brands who are involved in Better Work and also the factories who are expected to participate.

While admitting to "certain delays," Poutiainen said "we don't think that those delays are in any way a setback in relation to the overall ILO programmes that we have here, and we are hopeful and excited that the programme will be able to get going next year."

Operations will initially cover factories in two areas of the greater Dhaka region where there is high factory density, with plans to scale up by the third year of what is expected to be a three-year programme.

"We expect [the initiative] to be hopefully fully functional somewhere towards the middle of the year. We expect a maximum of 40 to 50 [pilot] factories can be entertained in the first year, and then the expectation continues to be that it will grow to something like 300 factories by the end of 2018.

Better Work Bangladesh is part of a wider US$24m ILO project 'Improving Working Conditions in the Ready-Made Garment Sector' designed to support the government-backed National Tripartite Plan of Action. As part of overall plans to set up the programme, the government of Bangladesh has also addressed a number of issues, including amendments to the country's labour law and union registration.

The initiative will provide factory-level services, including assessments of compliance with national labour law and international standards, as well as advisory and training services to help factories make improvements, not only to working conditions but also in productivity and quality. Factory assessment reports will be shared with buyers, while public reports will be released to provide progress over time.

Taking on board lessons learned from other Better Work country programmes in the garment industries of Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Lesotho, Nicaragua, Jordan and Haiti, the aim in Bangladesh is to differentiate factories depending on their level of social compliance, the strength of their social dialogue and industrial relations, systems development (HR, grievance mechanisms, OSH, and others), and commitment to learning. In addition, factories will also be differentiated on their ability to take ownership, willingness to be held accountable for change, and transparency.

Challenges unique to Bangladesh include the fact that numerous labour projects are already operating in the country's garment sector (including those of ILO, international brands and retailers through the Accord and the Alliance, NGOs and others), so avoiding duplication is key.

There is also the need to ensure that changes are sustainable in the long term once the government steps in and organisations like the Alliance and Accord are no longer in place.

In separate comments Poutiainen emphasised: "There cannot be a true safety culture unless the workers are also involved in creating that safety culture, and unless the workers and employers truly understand what it means to work together for better safety at work.

"And that requires that this current investment in safety and health should also be shared by employers and trade unions and worker organisations alike. And it also requires that there will be employer organisations and trade unions that meaningfully discuss at factory, sectorial or national level. 

"That's what we'd like to see in terms of roles and responsibilities.

"Very much is currently discussed in terms of the immediate assessments that have been done, but at the end of the day there has to be a government long-term oversight capacity capable of doing this job once the Accord and Alliance are no longer here.

"Also from an ILO perspective this includes investing in education, the education of engineers, young entrepreneurs and workers and their representatives. There's some thinking that needs to happen in terms of how to take advantage of this opportunity and how to move simultaneously to look at the capacity building of the young entrepreneurs, young engineers and young worker activists of Bangladesh."